How to Improve Your Gut Health with Plant-Based Foods

For March, National Nutrition Month, an annual campaign by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Meatless Monday team is sharing tips and insights on how to improve gut health with plant-based foods. 

Many factors contribute to your overall health—physical activity, diet, stress levels, and genetics—but a piece of the puzzle not often discussed is gut health.

The term gut health is a bit of a misnomer. Gut health is defined as the absence of gastrointestinal symptoms and disease, and more recently, as an overall state of good immune health and well-being.[1]  The gut is home to trillions of bacteria that contribute to energy, metabolism, and immunity.

It’s probably no surprise that the gut microbiome plays a role in digestion, metabolism, and inflammation, but the intestinal tract is also home to about 70-80% of your immune-producing cells. Gut health is so important that experts are now referring to it as the “second brain,” and researchers continue to study its connection to other parts of the body, like the brain, lungs, and liver. There’s evidence that gut health can play a role in prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some endocrine disorders, as well as a host of other chronic conditions.

So what’s the best way to keep your microbiome in tip-top shape?

The easiest and most effective way to support your gut health is by eating a balanced diet with fiber rich fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. Equally important is limiting alcohol consumption and other medications that may negatively impact the gut microbiome. Some foods can help boost your body’s production of beneficial bacteria, while eating other foods may increase the production of harmful chemicals linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiac events, such as heart disease. Read below to see how you can eat your way to a healthier gut.

Focus on Fiber

Fiber-rich foods, like beans, lentils, oats, whole wheat, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, are important to maintaining a healthy gut. Fiber comes in two varieties: soluble and insoluble.  Insoluble fiber is not easily digested, but helps promote regular bowel movements and prevent constipation. Soluble fiber on the other hand absorbs water, forming a gel that is consumed by gut bacteria. It’s easy to add more of both types of fiber into your diet with plant-based cooking. Veggie burgers, chickpea curry, or overnight oats are all excellent meal choices to help you stay full throughout the day (and night).

Eat Less Red Meat

It’s well documented that red meat, processed meat, and animal fats are sources of cholesterol and saturated fat, but these foods can also have a negative impact on the health of your gut. Red meat contains high amounts of L-carnitine, which stimulates the production of Trimethylamine N- Oxide (TMAO) in the the gut to help with the digestion of red meat[2]. High levels of TMAO are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes[3].

Eat More Fermented Foods

Eating fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and other pickled ingredients can increase the quantity of probiotics, also known as beneficial bacteria, in the gut. Probiotics have a strong link to gut health, and have been found to help improve digestion and strengthen immunity. Many fermented foods are vegetarian-friendly, and can be easily added to meals. Try topping sandwiches or pastas with kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage) or have a side of homemade pickles (made with water and salt, not vinegar).

Incorporate Prebiotic Foods

Prebiotics are certain plant fibers that function as food in the gut. They promote growth for the good bacteria in the gut.  You probably have prebiotic foods in your kitchen right now. Asparagus, bananas, garlic, oats, and onions, are all good sources of prebiotics. Try starting your morning with a banana date smoothie or some banana maple oatmeal.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Over-consumption of alcohol can have a number of negative health-outcomes, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, but too much drinking has also been linked to gastritis, an irritation of the gut in which it becomes inflamed, leading to heartburn, ulcers and bacterial infections. Heavy drinking can also reduce the variety of bacteria in the gut, weakening its effectiveness in promoting digestion and immune health.

 Click here for more Meatless Monday recipes.

[1] Staudacher H., Loughman A. Gut Health: definitions and determinants. April 2021

[2] Meng Wang, Zeneng Wang, Yujin Lee, Heidi T.M. Lai, Marcia C. de Oliveira Otto, Rozenn N. Lemaitre, Amanda Fretts, Nona Sotoodehnia, Matthew Budoff, Joseph A. DiDonato, Barbara McKnight, W.H. Wilson Tang, Bruce M. Psaty, David S. Siscovick, Stanley L. Hazen, Dariush Mozaffarian. Dietary Meat, Trimethylamine N-Oxide-Related Metabolites, and Incident Cardiovascular Disease Among Older Adults: The Cardiovascular Health Study. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2022; DOI: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.121.316533

[3] Heianza Y, Ma W, DiDonato JA, Sun Q, Rimm EB, Hu FB, Rexrode KM, Manson JE, Qi L. Long-Term Changes in Gut Microbial Metabolite Trimethylamine N-Oxide and Coronary Heart Disease Risk. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 Feb 25;75(7):763-772. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.11.060. PMID: 32081286; PMCID: PMC8140616.